Thanks to everyone who commented on the previous post. I left another ocmment of my own at the bottom of the thread, saying I planned to send the whole thing, comments and all, to my clinic's director, and describing an innovative solution recently installed by my dentist.
Loren just sent me this link to an article in the Guardian, addressing the same topic (news and anxiety) in depth; you might be interested as I was. I made a less-dramatic but similar decision about ten years ago, to limit my own exposure to the news, and mainly to read (not watch) quite selectively, for a short time each day.
Meanwhile, Mary, another frequent commenter, said that "nature does it for her," and offered this link to the Cornell Ornithology Lab's live webcam of great blue herons incubating their eggs, which is absolutely wonderful.
Yesterday morning I sat in the waiting room of the clinic where I have my annual medical exams. Something had changed since my last visit: a huge black television monitor occupied one wall, with the channel tuned to CNN.
It was impossible to ignore; the small waiting room had been turned into a screening room, where even patients who didn't want to watch were forced to listen. In the space of just a few minutes, I heard commentators speculate that this might be the day that North Korea decided to launch a missle. I heard reports of a new, deadly strain of bird flu in China, and an outbreak of meningitis among gay men in Los Angeles. There was discouraging discussion about the gun control bill, and a story that parents in Japan are starting to refuse to allow their children to come to the U.S. for university study, because of a perception that the country is becoming too dangerous.
A white-coated tecnician came into the room to get a cup of coffee just as the meningitis story was playing; the screen showed large electron-micrographs as the journalist's voice intoned the latest statistics. Oh dear, said the man, turning to me with a dismayed look on his face. He stood for a few minutes, riveted to the screen, and then walked out the door to begin his day.
My doctor came to the door and called my name; I was glad to escape. But during the morning I had to come back to the waiting room several times, between visits to the nurse for blood work, an EKG, and various other appointments. Each time, I watched the behavior of the other people in the room, all of whom would turn to face the TV, shaking their heads at each grim, frightening story. Last year, most of them were absorbed in their cell phones. I looked for a magazine or newspaper; unlike former visits, this time there was only one, an old issue of Vanity Fair; instead I pulled a book out of my pack, but it was very difficult to concentrate on the words.
Finally I turned to one of the other women and said, "I'm American, and really, this is part of what I came to Canada to escape."
As it turned out, she was originally American too, from North Carolina, but we had a pretty different take on things. She was conservative, I more liberal. While I objected to being force-fed anxiety by inflammatory stories in the media, she insisted it was "important to be informed." "I'm really worried when I go to the U.S. now," she said. "If I go to a shopping center across the border I really look around me at the people; it seems like anything could happen. Everyone has guns." Well, yes, I agreed, many people do, and I think that's a big problem. But you have to look at the statistics as well; your chance of being killed in a Wal-Mart in Burlington, Vermont, is not extremely high.
We both finished our appointments and went home, where in the afternoon we learned what had happened in Boston, and the cycle of horror, speculation, analysis, and fear began spinning all over again.
I don't want to add yet another voice to that sad and mostly-well-meant cacophony. I've spent many days of my life in Boston, and my heart goes out to the people of that city. If there is something concrete I can do to help, I will do it.
What I've been thinking about is the television in the waiting room, a Canadian waiting room, that once was a quiet place where people read, or talked to a companion, or even simply sat and looked out the window. Its presence seems to me an ominous symbol of something that has gone very wrong in most western societies: our inability to be with ourselves, to cope with the essential human condition of solitude, especially in situations that cause our anxiety to rise. It concerns me that, in our secular, post-liberal-arts, technological, perpetually-connected society, so little effort goes into teaching children how to be alone, showing them the richness and solace of time spent with nature, with the arts and handcrafts, with books and music, with oneself walking in a city or sitting on a bench: eyes open, ears open, mind and heart awake to the dance of life flowing around us.
When I return to the United States, as I did just last week, I'm always struck by the palpable level of general anxiety, so much greater than it is here in Quebec. But is that anxiety, and the corresponding reactiveness -- even in the wake of tragedies such as have been experienced in the past decade -- justified? In today's New York Times, University of Maryland criminologist Gary LaFree states, “I think people are actually surprised when they learn that there’s been a steady decline in terrorist attacks in the U.S. since 1970.” Speaking of both domestic and foreign plots, he noted that there were approximately 40 percent fewer attacks in America during the ten years after 9/11 than there had been in the previous decade. (LaFree is director of the highly-regarded National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, which studies terrorism and keep a Global Terrorism Database. He adds a note that nearly half the worldwide attacks, and 1/3 of those in the U.S., have never been solved.)
However, I think the media bears a large responsibility for fanning the flames of American anxiety. Supposed neutral channels like CNN feed viewers an endless diet of anxiety-producing stories, while the left and right square off in loud, combative talk shows and news hours, each side trying to out-shout the other. Television is a very powerful medium. Is it any wonder that so many people feel under attack, vulnerable, and constantly anxious, worrying about what is going to happen to them or to their loved ones? It it any wonder that they feel like the entire world is taking sides, at war, that it's us-against-them, myself against the potential unknown assalilant, intruder, terrorist, crazy person lurking in every community? Furthermore, we know that violence begets violence, that copycat crimes proliferate, and that what a lot of perpetrators want the most is publicity.
If the U.S. wants to worry about drugs and terrorism slipping across its porous northern border, then I am concerned about the insidious infiltration of this kind of secular preaching, these incessant sermons of anxiety and fear originating from the south. And much more than that, I wonder if those of us who have chosen to live our lives differently can perhaps be more vocal and intentional about why, and how. The world has always been dangerous for a vast majority of its citizens, but we in the west have been able to ignore that too long. Living positively, with awareness and joy in each day -- in spite of the possibility of death, which can and does happen anywhere, anytime -- is actually possible, as our brothers and sisters in war-torn, poverty-ravaged societies can teach us. And to look closer to home on this sad day: who knows better the fullness of solitude, or the potential triumph of the human spirit, than the long-distance runner?
Pica posing with the last falafel - after we shared a vegetarian platter of Lebanese dishes at Basha. She's wearing her "Celestarium" shawl that she knit herself: it's a large circle that includes a picture of the night sky laid out in tiny pearl beads against the dark blue -- brilliant, and gorgeous.
A couple of weeks ago, we had a wonderful visit from Pica, co-author of Feathers of Hope, which also turned ten that very week. Pica and I got to know each other early in our blogging careers, and then became close through The Ecotone Wiki, a collaboration of writers exploring the theme of "place." Many of us have stayed friends, and continued to blog, for all these years.
Pica is a woman of many talents; in addition to being an excellent writer and editor, she is an avid bird-watcher and sketcher (she maintains a second blog, Bird by Bird, for her avian sketches) and a master knitter who has recently learned to spin her own yarn. Like me, she's still a bit of a hippie at heart, a do-it-yourselfer who's intrigued rather than daunted at the idea of, say, making a solar cooker and cooking the vegetables she's grown in her garden that way; she likes making things with her own hands. Right now she's in-between jobs, and to celebrate that transition she fulfilled a longtime desire, and took a trip by train from California across the country and back, to visit her mother in Maine, with various sidetrips to see friends along the way, recording her travels in a sketchbook.
Somehow - I can't remember exactly - we got onto the subject of personal appearance and getting older, and she told me that her sister in Maine had encouraged her to go to Sephora in Portland to get "a little help and advice". Sephora -- an upscale, hip cosmetics retailer -- has recently opened a shop in the center of downtown Montreal. I'd been inside and admired the packaging of the whole experience, but hadn't bought anything; however, to my complete astonishment, my husband had bought me several Christmas presents there, and raved about what fun he'd had beign helped by a personal shopper who asked him all sorts of questions about me and then recommended products for him to give me - all of which I loved.
"Let's go together!" Pica said. "Look, I was a Sephora virgin
until last week -- you'll see, it will be fun." So off we went, two aging hippies who are into looking "natural."
Well, they were both right: it was quite the experience. We walked into the black, shiny, mirrored store -- dance music was pounding on the speakers -- and some young beauty with a headset offered me a little shopping basket, but I said I wanted some help, so she said, "Sure! Please go over to the beauty bar and I'll call someone to be with you right away." The beauty bar is a mirrored, two-sided, free-standing, well, bar, with tall stools, and is loaded with brushes and tissues and applicators and all the tools of the trade. My personal consultant showed up, and asked what I would like. Taking a cue from Pica's prompts, I said I didn't wear make-up except for a bit of mascara and lipgloss, but was curious about a very light makeup that would "even out" my skin a bit, and about something to help under my eyes.
She took charge. First, using a brush, she painted my face with something called a primer which "protects your pores," so she said. Then she used two different types of a new type of foundation called BB creme, "very light, no oil in these at all" on the two sides of my face, to compare. Then "concealer" under my eyes, presumably to conceal the fact that I've been alive for 60 years and sleeping about six hours a night for weeks. Then powder, so the "concealer" wouldn't be revealed as shiny. Then some blush, since she had obliterated all the color in my face in order to "even things out."
Pica asked lots of interesting questions of our totally bilingual cosmetology pro, whose name was Amina. I mostly held still, amazed to be where I was, putting on my reading glasses every now and then to peek in the mirror.
Funny thing, I actually looked pretty good when she was done, and not "unnatural." And fortunately I made it out of there without spending too much money. When we got home and told J. what we'd done, he was completely disappointed not to have been along - with his camera!
Pica back in our studio, adding color to a pen sketch while I sketch her. This isn't a great likeness, but I like that it includes her starry scarf, travel bag, and her trusty folding Schminke watercolor set!
The really fun thing, though, was having such a lovely visit with a longtime blogger friend. We sketched together, and talked, and ate, and drank wine, petted the cat, and talked some more, and she even came along to two of the Holy Week services where I was singing, which was a pleasure for us both. Some people seem to feel that online friendships aren't real, or can't be as deep as face-to-face relationships, but that just isn't my experience at all. Reading one another's blogs and communicating by email for a whole decade makes me feel that I know friends like Pica better than many people I see much more often. And on the rare occasions when we meet up in person, it's just a confirmation that, yes, these are very real friendships based on trust, honesty, intimacy, shared interests, love, and commitment over the long haul.
"Taqueria Mexico dans la ville" a few blocks from our studio.
To live in Montreal is to swim in a sea of languages. I came here seven or eight years ago feeling my lack of French fluency very keenly. Gradually, it's improved -- through practice and immersion, helped by friendships and our deliberate choice to live in a French neighborhood -- to the point where I can read very well, manage to express myself in most situations, sustain fairly simple conversations, and converse with people who don't speak English. Best of all, I can finally follow the gist, at least, of most of what I hear. At first I thought being shy about speaking was the most isolating aspect, but I quickly realized, no, it was my failure to understand what was being said around me. In a way, it was like being deaf, and reminded me of my father-in-law's last years, when he so often simply tuned out of conversations he couldn't hear or understand, and as a result felt left out -- and he was, in fact, left out unless one of us acted as "translator" for him. I'm grateful to my bilingual friends here who've done that for me during meetings or other events when I was missing big chunks of important information.
But another aspect of Montreal reality is that many people are not merely bilingual, but trilingual, or even more. There are many immigrants and many blended families; people travel a lot too, and they're interested in other cultures, and want to be able to speak at least a little bit when they arrive; it seems like a cultural tendency, even a hobby, among many people in this city. I always laugh when I go to my dentist: in that office alone there are native speakers of French, Spanish, Romanian, and Farsi, which, when combined with my English, generally leads to a lively exchange rather than confusion, because they all find it fun to do that, and so do I.
Two of our best friends here are completely fluent in English, Spanish, and French, and I've been continually impressed and envious of the easy way they switch back and forth. They've been so generous in including us in family gatherings, sometimes with visitors from South America who speak no French or English. I've often wished I could converse a little in Spanish, a language I've never studied. Last year, when our bathroom was being re-done, the expert tile installer often brought his father, an entremely warm, nice man, to help -- but the older man spoke only Spanish. This sort of encounter happens all the time, and always feel like a missed opportunity when there's no language in common.
If I had been born here, I wonder if languages would have become more of a hobby for me, too. I studied French in school, then ancient Greek and German - but the later two were just for reading; speaking a language is different. I have some aptitude for hearing and repeating the nuances of sound -- maybe being musical helps. My problem, as an adult learner, has mainly been time. How I wish I knew the essential phrases and expressions and basic vocabulary in Arabic, Spanish, Italian, German, Farsi, Russian...not to mention Chinese and Japanese! Another potential avocation for a person with too many already!
However, with an upcoming trip to points south, I am finally tackling task #1, and learning some basic Spanish. It's been decades since I seriously studied a language besides French, and I'm finding it fascinating and fun. French turns out to be a help, as well as a confusion - my brain rebels at similarities like "elle" and "ella." (I do feel a little bit like I'm trying to cram new puchases into an already-full closet.) To study and practice, I've been using the online beginner's course offered by "Babbel;" the computer environment offers not only drills in reading and writing, but the benefits of an oral language lab with speech recognition. It keeps track of mistakes and presents an individualized review of my least-internalized material.
I just wish -- as always -- that there were more hours in the day!
On New Year's Day I had time (like many of the rest of us, from the statistics) to go around and catch up on blog reading, write a few notes to friends and family, pick up the house a bit...you know, all that stuff that's been neglected or postponed. There's still plenty to do, but I can see the world starting up again. Yesterday as we came up to the studio there was absolutely no one on the streets -- no one! Today, not as much movement as usual, and not all the shops and offices were open, but people were definitely out and about.
I managed to drop my camera sometime near Christmas, and it stopped focussing -- so there will be fewer pictures here for a bit, while my beloved Canon S95 is out for repairs. J. has been generous about lending me his, and I've got my phone...
One of the blogs I visited recently was Seon Joon's. I met her online in the early days of blogging, and then, not long after, she moved to Korea and became a Buddhist nun. She now has a blog again, where she posts near-daily "small stones," an occasional excellent photograph, and longer pieces about her life, and I can't recommend it highly enough: her wisdom, humor, directness, and good sense always delight and inspire me.This quote of hers caught my attention yesterday, and seems a good way to begin the new year:
"I fall down way more than I stand up; but Zen Master Seung Sahn, who is one of my root teachers, always said, “Fall down seven times, get up eight.” Well, here I am, falling down again. And laughing, while I get back up. That’s life. That’s living."
And while we're visiting websites, fans of Teju Cole's writing might want to check these links to 12 essays he wrote in 2012.
I'm not a person who makes resolutions on January 1, but I do spend some time reflecting back, and thinking forward. Here are some of the odd thoughts I've had about the months ahead:
Continue teaching/leading meditation and developing and recommitting to my own daily practice
Focus my online energy on this blog, and otherwise into real-time life, work, and relationships; either get off social media entirely or limit time spent there
Do something with my Iceland manuscript and drawings
Continue and build on the artwork focus of last year
Just do the best work I can, without comparing, or competing for attention
Get outside and walk every day
Read more this year (I've got a good list started)
Explore some new recipes, and have people over more regularly
Drink more tea, less coffee (it's all decaf for me, anyway)
Take advantage of more cultural opportunities in the city
Get out of the city more often
Be optimistic: "Fall down seven times, get up eight!"
What about you?
When I came across this watercolor from the late 1980s I still liked it, but had no recollection of the scene. It reminded me of twisted trees I saw last year along the coast of Florida, but I knew that couldn't be it. I studied and studied the painting, and then suddenly it came to me - these were the branches of a Siberian peaberry in our Vermont garden, and the ferns that grew underneath them. When we sat on our terrace in back of the house, you'd see this view up underneath the branches. I must have been trying to capture the energy and busy-ness I found in the mixture of foliage. Once the memory snapped into place, I was right back there.
The painting also reminded me of a recurrent dream: I am seated at the piano, or preparing to sing, but the music in front of me is a painting or picture, not a score. I have to "play" or "sing" the painting.
This watercolor looks like music to me! The rhythmic punctuation of the spiky vertical foliage at the top; the twisting branches could be chordal structures; the curving ferns a repetitive, looping pattern of melody. Last night at choir we worked for two hours on works by Stravinsky for our upcoming annual fundraising concert, November 2. We worked hard on a piece called Credo, which has a complex rhythmical structure that our director parsed for us; we went rhoguh,marking our scores, then saying the words in rhythm, then singing them. It took a lotof concentration, and it's no wonder that my mind went in that direction this morning even though the dreams were a while ago.
My bedtime reading lately has been a book called The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World's Wild Places, by Bernie Krause. Krause is a musician, recording engineer, and scientist with a PhD in bioacoustics who has spent a great deal of time making recordings in very wild places, capturing and studying their particular "sound signatures." In a lot of ways, his premise seems pretty obvious to me, and has since I was a child - of course music came from the natural world, of which we (and our voices, our talent for mimicry, and our ability to make sounds with tools) are an intrinsic part. I read the first half of the book, and skimmed the rest. Of course, Krauses' book is all about animals and the natural sounds of water, wind, and rain -- he doesn't say anything about playing or singing inspired by foliage or rocks! But visual rhythm and pattern exist everywhere, and I see no reason why they too can't be translated into sound, music, dance and movement.
Summer fields, Paris Hill, NY 6"x 4" (detail)
Like my publishing business, having an online gallery is proving to be a pretty interesting experiment, both inner and outer. Some work has sold, but at this venue in particular, it seems like most people are looking for items that are affordable; here that means $20 - $50. Prints are one option, as are very small works. I'm trying both, and have just reduced the prices on all my spring and summer paintings. I've had to set up yet another accounting system, figure out the international shipping, devise lightweight mailers, work regularly on the online shop -- all that stuff that goes with having a business, but fortunately I don't mind that; having a business is familiar territory, it's the online marketing that is different, whether it's publishing or art or music or whatever.
On the inside, though, I think even more has changed. For so many years, my "career identity" was "graphic designer." As we transition from doing design and communications pretty much fulltime into a broader mix of activities that includes an emphasis on art and writing for me, the direct relationship of money-to-work is changing a lot. The work I've done with my partner all our professional life was intense and demanding, with tight deadlines and a lot of financial/supervisory responsibility for making sure things went properly -- but it was well paid. It also had a social component: long-term relationships with clients and suppliers, and the interesting psychological side of understanding what people were looking for and giving it visual expression. We received some verbal appreciation, to be sure, but that was never a major part of the equation or the motivation.
It's challenging for me to do work now that is just as difficult and demanding, or even more so, but almost entirely self-motivated, with little chance of financial reward. Whether it's publishing books or writing my own words, or doing artwork, I'm doing it for one primary reason: because I want to. I wonder if, without the internet, I'd find it too isolating: I think the social aspect was a major factor why I turned toward graphic design and having a business long ago. I'm a person who likes and needs solitude, but I'm not an introvert.
We're all getting used to sharing our art and writing online these days, maybe even taking it for granted, but I remember how isolated and lonely I used to feel. It bothers me that it's become so difficult for artists and writers to make a living from their work -- it was always difficult, but much mroe so now -- and the internet has added to the perception that art is free. In an ideal work art would indeed be free, but artists would be supported and valued by the society at large. In the meantime, people are scrambling, and no one knows how it will all shake out. It's a struggle some days to keep from feeling discouraged, whether personally, or about the many talented writers and artists I'm privileged to know and sometimes represent, especially with the din of voices clamouring for attention. On the other hand, I feel very fortunate to have the time and resources now to do my own work, and to share it, and some thoughts on the process, with others. It's easy to forget what a rich milieu we have here, both in terms of friendship and sharing, and in access to resources that would have made my early years, for instance, entirely different.
Meanwhile, choir rehearsals for the new season at the cathedral started last night. It felt great to be singing again, back in touch with that incredible wealth of music. I worry, though, how long is this going to be sustainable? There are days when I feel like all the things I love the most are under attack and undervalued -- days when I feel like a complete dinosaur. And a majority of days when I know the thing to do is just be myself, and do what feels right.
It's a mixed and complicated bag. If I had to choose, now, between financial gain or the opportunity to share my work, I'd opt for the latter. Do you agree? I think what most creative people want the most, in addition to the ability to create in the first place, is to share our passion with others; it's the little words of encouragement and support that help us go back to our desk or studio or piano and begin again the next day.
Pauline Marois' Parti Quebecois won a narrow victory in yesterday's election, but not enough to form a majority government. At the victory celebration at Montreal's Metropolis theater, a gunman came in through the back after setting a fire and fired a rifle, killing one man and critically wounding another. The gunman was subdued by police and taken away, during which he shouted in French at the TV cameras: "The anglophones are waking up!"
Those are the facts as we know them right now. Quebec and Canada being what they are - i.e., not America -- few in the media are speculating or laying blame; the police and the media have acted with responsibility, restraint, and professionalism. No one knows exactly what the gunman meant, because we don't yet know who he was. However, it seems most likely that he was an anglophone extremist who didn't like what Pauline Marois stands for and has been saying.
What we can say for certain is that the past six months in the province have been the most tense in many years. As I wrote yesterday, I was upset by Pauline Marois' rhetoric and platform calling for strengthening the language laws and imposing restrictions on religious dress. I'm not upset that she, or other people, have strong feelings about their own culture; that is her right and furthermore, I understand historically why she feels that way. But I am opposed to rhetoric that can be perceived as racist in any form, and particularly to public officials inflaming tensions along any societal divides: cultural, sexual, ethnic, religious. When political leaders, or celebrities, or talk show hosts -- anyone with a public voice -- does this, it runs the risk of inciting people to violence and hate crimes, as well as lesser but very damaging incidents where self-control would normally prevail.
Yesterday a YouTube video went viral on the social networks. It showed a drunken couple on a late-night Montreal street verbally attacking some Asian men for speaking English instead of French in public. Of course, there is no law in Quebec saying that anyone has to speak French in public! But like the video of a London woman berating an immigrant on a bus earlier this year, this couple were out of control, repeatedly demanding of the men if they had been born in Quebec, calling them "fucking British," and screaming at them to speak French.
Today, anyone can turn into a public figure, with an audience. 80,000 people have watched that video so far.
The election concerns all of Quebec, but we also have our own city to consider. The most unique and precious thing about Montreal is not merely its French ambience and European flavor, but its vibrant and peaceful multiculturalism. That is what we all should be trying to recognize and protect.
A society can be full of people who have reasonable, rational, balanced attitudes about difficult issues -- frankly, this election demonstrated that, and in general our daily culture does too. A shooting incident like this is very unusual for Montreal, and shocks us -- it is only the 22nd homicide of the entire year, in a city of over 3 million people, but every senseless human death is a tragedy. It should wake us all up to the fact that there is no room for inflammatory rhetoric in our society. I've lived with so much of this in the United States, and seen where it leads. Surely we can do better here, and demand better from our leaders as well as ourselves.